PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — By mid-November, Rick Weiland expects to have more than enough signatures to put a state constitutional amendment establishing abortion rights on South Dakota’s 2024 election ballot for voters to decide. Jon Hansen, however, doesn’t want the question to ever get that far.
Hansen instead has been working to keep in place South Dakota’s current law banning nearly all abortions. Under it, victims of rape and incest must bear their children or leave South Dakota for another place where abortion is legal. The one exception available is to save the life of the mother.
If Weiland’s Roe-modeled amendment — which would allow unregulated abortion through the first trimester, keep abortion legal in the second trimester but permit state regulations, and provide exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s health — does get enough signatures to be filed, Hansen, an attorney, intends to try to disqualify as many of those signatures as possible. He wants to get the number of valid signatures below the 35,017 minimum. If he succeeds, the amendment wouldn’t be on the ballot.
Hansen, a Republican House member from Dell Rapids, is a co-chair and Steve Perkins, a retired Sioux Falls business leader, is treasurer of Life Defense Fund, a group formed last year that’s been dogging the abortion-rights signature gatherers whenever possible. The other co-chair is Leslee Unruh of Sioux Falls, an abstinence advocate who in 1984 opened an anti-abortion pregnancy center.
KELOLAND News spoke with Weiland and Hansen earlier this week. The interviews reflected the deep divide about whether abortion should or shouldn’t be legal in South Dakota.
Weiland said people associated with the Life Defense Fund have appeared at petition-signing events, where they hand out ‘Decline to Sign’ pamphlets and sometimes have engaged in heckling.
“It got really ugly, really nasty,” Weiland said about the scene sometimes outside the Minnehaha County administration building. Abortion opponents have appeared at other places where the signature-gatherers have been, such as the Sioux Falls Farmers Market held on Saturdays, and during music events at Levitt at the Falls in downtown Sioux Falls. “They’ve been impactful, but not everybody runs,” Weiland said.
Hansen said Life Defense Fund relies on volunteers who present their side of the issue to people who stop to see what the signature gatherers are carrying. They don’t go to private events, according to Hansen. “Where we go is what’s public,” he said.
Hansen claimed that the petition circulators “lie” about some of what the amendment would do. For example, he said, parental notification would be eliminated, as would health safeguards during the first trimester. “They don’t tell the whole truth about it,” Hansen said.
For a while, the petition carriers weren’t allowed to use a large part of the area outside the Minnehaha County administration building. That came after the Minnehaha County auditor, Leah Anderson, recommended that the Minnehaha County Commission limit where signatures could be sought for any petition. Weiland’s side eventually won a federal judge’s order that reopened the restricted area. The county government and Weiland’s side are now in negotiation.
Life Defense Fund received a $200 contribution from Anderson’s political committee, Leah for Minnehaha Auditor, according to LDF’s 2022 year-end report that Hansen filed with the South Dakota Secretary of State office. Hansen told KELOLAND News however that Life Defense Fund wasn’t involved in the attempt to restrict the area outside the administration building. “We haven’t had any involvement in that. That was all just through the county,” he said.
Weiland’s perspective is that South Dakotans want the voters, rather than the Legislature, to decide whether abortion should be legal. He cited a Mason-Dixon poll that found 65% of respondents preferred a public vote. “So we know we’re on solid ground in terms of letting the people decide,” Weiland said. He expects to file about 60,000 signatures in mid-November.
Hansen said his side will be ready when the petitions are filed. “We’re going to very closely scrutinize those signatures,” he said. If the question qualifies, Hansen said South Dakota will be the latest battleground.
“We’ve raised enough money to sort of fulfill our mission today,” he said about the Life Defense Fund’s finances. “If they do make the ballot, you can assume millions of dollars from pro-abortion groups will flow into the state, and we’re going to have to match that.”
Abortion was legal nationwide until the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 2022 Dobbs decision that said each state could regulate it. That triggered a previously-dormant South Dakota law, passed in 2005, outlawing abortion other than to protect the life of the mother.
South Dakota voters twice refused to prohibit abortion in statewide votes during the 2006 and 2008 general elections. Both measures were rejected by about 55% of voters. Hansen said those results didn’t set a precedent and the current question wasn’t on the ballot. “So it’s completely different,” he said.
Weiland said he knows what’s coming from Hansen’s side. “They’re going to pull out a Trump. They’re going to do everything they can to slow this down from getting on the ballot,” he said about what’s expected from Life Defense Fund.
Weiland, who’s been an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for South Dakota’s seats in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, said abortion opponents have a religious view that, according to Weiland, shouldn’t be imposed on all. Kansas was the first state since the Dobbs decision where voters decided to protect abortion, which Weiland said was “was like an earthquake” given its Republican-oriented Legislature.
Since then, other states such as Kentucky and Montana have done likewise, and Ohio voters earlier this month rejected an attempt to raise to 60% the state’s threshold for a ballot measure to pass. Republican lawmakers in Ohio had put the question on the ballot to get ahead of a statewide vote on abortion this fall.
The experiences in those states give Weiland hope that South Dakota voters, who have trended Republican and independent for the past decade while Democrats have lost numbers, will support protecting abortion in the state constitution. “If that can happen in Kansas it can happen anywhere,” he said.